Over the years I have with effort to see a large number of British films and had seen four of the five films in this collection. In all four cases, however, the print I saw was vastly inferior to the superb prints contained in this fascinating set of films. So far I've seen three sets of DVDs from Ealing: one featuring the films of Alec Guinness, another containing several non-Guinness comedies, and this collection of war films. I hope that they don't stop with these. Although the sets are remarkable for the utter and complete absence of extras (and by none I truly do mean none), the prints themselves have in ever instance been impeccable. A bit about each film.
THE DAM BUSTERS--Of all the films in the set, this is the one that is most widely available. I first saw this as a small kid when in my most passionate warmonger phase. It is based on an actual bombing raid in WW II where a technique for attacking dams was developed by a British scientist. By dropping bombs so that they would skip across water like stones across the surface of a pond, they were able to attack targets surrounded by water that were normally protected by torpedo nets. Michael Redgrave anchors an excellent cast of performers who will largely be unknown to American audiences, though Basil Sydney appears in both this film and in WENT THE DAY WELL?, while a very young Robert Shaw can be seen in several scenes. If one is very attentive one will spot a very young Patrick McGoohan in a small role as a guard.
THE CRUEL SEA--Far and away the best film of the bunch, and one of the very best films about the Battle of the North Atlantic, this brings home the story of escort work against the German U-Boats better than any other film. The movie tells the story of the Compass Rose, a destroyer employed in protecting cargo ships during the early part of WW II. The cast is outstanding, anchored by a powerful performance by Jack Hawkins, a superb actor not as well known in the US as he deserves to be, though his role in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI guarantees that he will not ever be forgotten (he is the only one of the major stars who ends the film alive) and also by his memorable role as an alcoholic missionary in ZULU. Speaking of ZULU, the star of that film, Stanley Baker, has a memorable supporting role here as the overly intense first officer in the first third of the film. Many of the other performers will be more familiar by face than by name, the best known by far being a very young and startling handsome Denholm Elliott. The film has many marvelous moments as well as two haunting scenes: the first where Hawkins has to attack a German U-Boat that is submerged below a group of British sailors in the water awaiting rescue, but instead find the destroyer dropping depth charges directly below them, guaranteeing their deaths. Equally disturbing is the sound of the men over the communication tubes after the Compass Rose has been struck by a torpedo. One could add the ensuing scene as well, the British sailors who crowd onto the two rafts following the sinking of the ship, only a few managing to survive the night. All in all, this is a powerful, disturbing film driven by a string of strong performances.
THE COLDITZ STORY--John Mills stars in this excellent film about prisoners of war intent on escaping from an interment camp in Colditz Castle. Directed by Guy Hamilton, of James Bond fame, the film tells the story of British, Polish, and French soldiers who gradually learn to coordinate their efforts in escaping from the camp. There are a score of fine performances in this one, led by Mills and Eric Portman as leaders of the British officers, and backed by memorable performances by the likes of Ian Carmichael, Lionel Jeffries, and Bryan Forbes. Film and folk music fans will also recognize Theodore Bikel as one of the Polish officers.
THE SHIP THAT DIED OF SHAME--I saw this one many years ago in an inferior print. It is an unusual film, almost a gothic ghost story. It stars George Baker and Richard Attenborough as two former officers of a WW II wooden patrol boat. I'm not certain what they were called in Britain, but in the US they were called PT boats, though unlike the famous PT-109 this ship is fitted with deck guns instead of torpedo tubes. The ship distinguishes itself in wartime, but after the war is put into mothballs until after the war, when the two officers buy it to use it for smuggling. With the help of the boat's former coxswain, they engage in petty smuggling for a long while, but eventually get involved in more serious crime. At this point the boat starts mysteriously breaking down or steering hard when doing something deeply wrong. In the end, the boat seemingly commits suicide rather than continue being used in criminal activities. This is certainly not a great film, but it does manage to be a very interesting one.
WENT THE DAY WELL?--This was the one film I had not seen before and it is the only one actually made during WW II. It was definitely made as a morale booster and tells the fictional story of a German invasion by a company of English-speaking troops of a small English village as a prelude to an invasion of Britain by German forces at large. It is a fairly improbable film, in that even if Hitler had been able to assemble that many soldiers who could pass for English, it would be highly unlikely that they would have been squandered so readily. Nonetheless, the film is entertaining and avoids most of the sentimentality and hollow patriotism one might expect in such an effort. The cast is strong, with the normally heroic Leslie Banks playing a German plant in the village. If it isn't in the end especially convincing, it nonetheless features a likable ensemble cast.
One thing all of these films have in common, and something typical of most of the Ealing Studios films, is marvelous scores. Many of Britain's finest orchestral composers wrote for the cinema and scores and the playing are almost always incomparable.
These films may not have the macho heroism associated with American films, but I find these much more focused on the actual human experience. They truly are must-see films both for fans of British cinema and for any WW II buffs.